Even when your customers have used a product for years, and that product is accepted as an industry standard, your company’s radar must stay active - channeled through sales, marketing, engineering, and legal -  in order to protect and increase market share.

Take wood finishes. For decades many wood finishes used in North America have contained formaldehyde. It is used as a building block in an amino chemistry reaction with other materials to create an economical finish that forms a good film and has good properties.

Over the years, the durability and appearance qualities of acid catalyzed coatings, such as conversion varnish and catalyzed lacquers – along with ultraviolet alternatives typically used in larger shops - have made them the more popular and accepted factory applied finishes for wood cabinets, furniture and architectural millwork.

These finishes are still used on a regular basis in commercial finishing applications. Many finishers are content to continue using these tried and true products.

But when the spadework that a manufacturer regularly performs tells them that the game is changing – or soon will be – it makes all the sense to invest in product development to meet the perceived needs of our customers– plus the needs of their customers, as well.

Based on conversations we at Sherwin-Williams have had with manufacturers from the wood cabinetry, furniture and casegoods industries nearly six years ago, we recognized that factory applied finishes in North America would soon need to change to meet evolving air quality and environmental requirements.

Discussions around formaldehyde revealed that many customers preferred an alternative to reduce employee exposure during application and curing. Customers also expressed a desire to reduce odors during product installation or unpacking, when residual formaldehyde emissions may be most noticeable.

As these conversations were taking place, the overall view of formaldehyde across industries was changing. Formaldehyde has been a suspected carcinogen for many years.

In June 2011, it was formally labeled as such by the U.S. Government’s National Toxicology Program. While not banned from wood finishes, this development, coupled with customer conversations, showed that it made sense to seek alternatives.

Because of the proven track record and popularity of conversion varnishes and catalyzed lacquers, Sherwin-Williams selected these for formaldehyde free new product development.

We started with conversion varnish. It took several years to develop an initial conversion varnish product – known as Sher-Wood® F3 Kemvar® Varnish. It was introduced at the 2011 Association of Woodworking and Furniture Suppliers Show, one month after the government listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen.

Formaldehyde free conversion varnishes have been available for just over a year, but have already created a significant impact within the industry from both a manufacturing and finished goods point of view.

This new technology provides a formaldehyde free environment that improves the indoor air quality in homes, offices and other commercial settings. Manufacturers can now offer their customers the ability to meet LEED IAQ standards for individual projects -- of particular concern in providing cabinetry and casegoods for office, retail or hotel projects.

In addition, manufacturers that use this new coating technology improve employees’ work environment by reducing the potential exposure to formaldehyde emissions.

Changing the game

We regularly conduct product blueprinting sessions with a wide range of customers to determine their wants and future needs. In 2006 and 2007, many of them told us of their desire to reduce or eliminate formaldehyde in finishes without compromising finish quality or the need to replace existing finishing equipment on their lines.

Customers participating in these sessions realized that these products would come at a higher cost, but many of them also realized that in an industry that is consistently updating regulations, formaldehyde was an ingredient that will most likely be addressed at some point. It was key to be ready to meet new standards when that time came.

That time came more quickly than anticipated. By 2010, customers were coming to us with projects that specified low emission air quality features – including formaldehyde -- that would allow the end user to meet the LEED-IAQ standard.

Product development and testing

While conducting our product blueprinting, we were already in fact working with a vendor who was, conducting their own product blueprinting. We discussed the possibility of developing a product to replace to replicate the best features of a traditional conversion varnish using a polymer-based technology to eliminate formaldehyde.

Together, we tested several variations of a polymer over the next several years. As results improved, we reached the stage where field tests began. As testing continued and test market customers returned panels from test runs, we examined the panels to ensure that the product worked on their substrate from production as required.

Formaldehyde- free Finishes: How We Developed ThemAdjustments were made. Films were made more flexible, the catalyst ratio and solvent blend were changed as work continued toward the final product. Independent emission testing was conducted to confirm that emission levels met BIFMA and GREENGUARD regulations that would allow customers to qualify for LEED credits when using the product. GREENGUARD Air Quality (IAQ) Certification for Low Emitting Products was granted in June 2012.

The end result: a clear conversion varnish that contains no formaldehyde, or, ingredients that may emit formaldehyde. The finish has a 24-hour pot life, and applies with very low odor, improving the work environment. Also met was the goal of being a drop-in replacement, eliminating any need for costly process changes or equipment upgrades.

Early adopter

One company that worked with us throughout the product development process was Jofco, a Jasper, Indiana-based wood casegoods manufacturer. Jofco was contacted by the architect and designer charged with remodeling 150 offices for a large east coast multimedia company. One of the primary requirements – a formaldehyde-free finish for low-emitting furniture that would both eliminate “building sickness” and help the customer earn LEED-CI credit IEQ4.5.

Jofco’s need came during the early stages of our conversion varnish product development, affording us the opportunity to work together. Product testing on their finish line allowed us to use a real-world environment. We initially tested on solid maple, then on small blocks of Jofco’s core/substrates, then a suite of their finished products.

Third-party analytical testing took place at Material Analytical Services in Atlanta. Testing on the suite meant measuring outgassing for seven days in an enclosed chamber. By passing the test, the Jofco’s products were identified as MAS Certified Green, providing them with the certification necessary to meet their customer’s requirements.

We also worked together to ensure drop-in capabilities. The finish needed to be compatible with their existing spray line, and we worked with their personnel to ensure that best practices were achieved through proper spraying techniques and that precise wet millage.

Formaldehyde- free Finishes: How We Developed ThemToday, Jofco uses a customized finish that is free of all formaldehyde hazards on all of its casegoods and conference room products and recently added it to their seating product lines. They have created a new brand – AirPUR™ – that assures customers that it is compliant with ANSI/BIFMA X7.1 and contributes to LEED-CI credit IEQ4.5 for low emitting furniture.

What’s next?

We believed that the next logical step was to expand the product line of formaldehyde free technology. The first development was a conversion varnish sealer. The next topcoat technology was a catalyzed lacquer to meet the needs of the many finishers that use lacquers on a regular basis.

We recently introduced this product, Sher-Wood® F3 ® Hil-Bild PreCat Lacquer, at IWF in Atlanta. Wood finishers rely on traditional lacquers for their forgiving characteristics, making touch-up fast and easy. The new lacquer maintains these qualities and continues to offer the look, feel and overall benefits offered by a standard catalyzed lacquer.

High volume solids provide a faster build and improved overall performance. It is a self-sealing product that can be used with our existing stains and glazes.

It also adds the convenience of a three to six month pot life. Our facilities stock the product and catalyze it before it is shipped to customers, giving them a true pot life. It minimizes waste and saves them time, because we catalyze it for them. It is available as a drop-in replacement for existing finishes.

Demand for formaldehyde free finishes continues to grow as emissions standards are expected to become tighter, LEED-IAQ opportunities expand and manufacturers focus on providing an improved work environment with lower odors and emissions. The game continues to change. Recognizing those changes and being ready for them is the key to providing customers with the products they need to stay on top.



Art Kirby is a Technical Director for the Product Finishes Division of Sherwin-Williams, and heads the company’s Global Wood Laboratory in Greensboro, N.C. He has spent 36 years with Sherwin-Williams, focusing on industrial coatings. Mr. Kirby is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, and Roosevelt University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.



Mark Harms is the Global Market Development Director, Furniture, of the Product Finishes Division of Sherwin-Williams. A veteran of both the coatings and furniture industries, he has been with Sherwin-Williams for nine years and is based in Greensboro, N.C. Mr. Harms is responsible for identifying new product needs for the global furniture market and works with designers and manufacturers to support their specific market requirements.

Formaldehyde- free Finishes: How We Developed Them
Formaldehyde- free Finishes: How We Developed Them

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